In Grayson Perry’s ‘Art Club,’ an Exhibition of Britain’s Lockdown Dreams

In Grayson Perry’s ‘Art Club,’ an Exhibition of Britain’s Lockdown Dreams

In Grayson Perry’s ‘Art Club,’ an Exhibition of Britain’s Lockdown Dreams

In Grayson Perry’s ‘Art Club,’ an Exhibition of Britain’s Lockdown Dreams

LONDON — If any British artist has reached the status of a national treasure, it’s Grayson Perry, who is adored both by art critics and by those who rarely step into a gallery.

Now Perry, 60, has turned his attention to how the British public is dealing with lockdown, hosting a show called “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4. Each week, Perry chooses a theme and asks viewers to send in art they have made.

He and his wife, the psychotherapist Philippa Perry, also make works themselves, and talk to celebrities and members of the public about their output over video calls. At the end of the pandemic, a selection of the works will be exhibited.

The show, which gets over 1.3 million viewers a week, has received almost 10,000 submissions, producing a charming and occasionally bizarre portrait of Britain’s preoccupations during the crisis.

When Perry asked for portraits, someone submitted a bust of Chris Witty, England’s chief medical officer, who was then often on television advising people to wash their hands.

For an episode themed on “fantasy,” someone sent in a painting of a closed pub.

And another show asked for works based on the view outside people’s windows. In response, one woman sent in a painting of trash cans, and another painted the closed dental office opposite her home. “I have very bad tooth ache,” she said in her video submission.

The show is filmed by cameras installed in Perry’s London studio, and the show’s director sits in a tent in the nearby garden during filming. Viewers see Perry working and talking enthusiastically with his wife and guests about the public’s submissions.

“Any professional artist would tell you it’s very difficult to be very good,” he said in a recent telephone interview about the show. “But that doesn’t matter. We should all go for a jog, but we’re not going to win an Olympic medal.”

In the interview, Perry also talked about the compulsion to make art while in lockdown, the mental health benefits of creativity and the future of Britain’s cultural institutions. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why has there been such a boom in art making during the pandemic?

Art is a process. It’s expressing yourself and doing something, and throwing yourself into it and getting better at it and trying again. That’s what it’s about. And people are responding to that now.

It’s going right back to cave painting: You pick a charcoal stick from the fire and draw on the wall. There’s something very primal about it, and it’s a lot more accessible than other crafts. You can do it with your phone, you can do it with some sticks from the garden, your pen and a pit of old paper.

So you don’t think it’s about people wanting to get their emotions or anxieties out?

Not really. How art works is really interesting. It comes from our unconscious, a lot of it. And we’re communicating in ways we’re not completely aware of when we’re making it.

A lot of people think art’s about something other than themselves, but that’s something we keep reiterating through the show. It isn’t an arm’s-length activity, it’s an expression of who you are.

How did that appear when you asked the public for depictions of animals?

I was once judging some prisoner art, and you wouldn’t believe the number of eagles and tigers and symbols of freedom and wildness that came up. It was a really strong trope.

The ones we got this time were all dogs, cats and the birds out of the windows. There were very few wild and exotic creatures. For a lot of people those pets are the only ones that are around, and so they are symbolic of having a friend, a family.

When you’ve been looking at the art people have sent in, what themes have you noticed?

The thing that crops up the most are the headlines: The virus, the National Health Service, masks, the P.P.E. (personal protective equipment), the rainbows.

All those things are endlessly repeated, but we only choose a tiny selection of the works that are sent in. I don’t think people want to look at pictures of coronavirus all the time.

A lot have revealed stories. What’s stuck out for you?

There was a lad called Alex who made these little creatures. He was quite autistic, and like most autistic people he liked routine and calmness, so I suppose the lockdown was a bit traumatic for him. And he had this comfort that every Saturday he made four figures, and it was one of the things in the confusion and disruption that kept him calm.

I thought that was really poignant, such a good example of the power of making things and disappearing into a world of his own creation.

The government here has spoken a lot about the importance of keeping physical distance, but the mental side of this experience is being discussed far less.

Oh, there’s going to be a massive (problem) the longer it goes on. If you have anxiety, lying in bed in the middle of night, thinking about something, (normally) we wake up in the morning saying, “Why was I so worried about that?”

The problem with lockdown is we’re not waking up from it — it goes on and on.

So art can be a help in this moment?

Well, you can externalize it (the anxiety with art) and it’s always good to get it out, but it’s not as good as talking to someone else.

Your show seems to be another example of just how important culture has become at the moment.

There’s a lovely post in The Paris Review about how unimportant culture’s become in lockdown.

We’ve got this whole thing about key workers now, and I always wonder if there’ll be this generation of kids growing up: “When I grow up, I want to be a food supplier.” Because suddenly these guys are the heroes making the world run.

And I think it’s interesting that culture’s had to be put on the back burner a bit.

The British government has been criticized for paying little attention to how the culture sector is going to emerge from lockdown. How do you feel about what’s been happening?

For me personally, and all the institutions I’m involved with, it’s tragic. They’re all struggling with how they’re going to deal with it. And particularly things like theaters — they’re going to be the last thing that comes back to life.

It’s happening to everybody and every institution, so people are going to be forgiving of it. They’re going to say, “Get it together when you can, and pay for it when you can.”

Culture is a collaborative exercise, and I think everybody will do their bit to help it grow.


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